The High Holidays: Why Bother?

Allen: Aron, I’ll kick off the conversation by saying it’s a real pleasure to be writing with you, no sarcasm intended. We’ve come a long way from arguing over our spot on the canteen line to arguing over the future of liberal Judaism — most likely both conversations will be equally unproductive. But I’m hoping that by blogging we can start to articulate both our thoughts on some of the issues that have come to matter to us. Also, we’ll free up time to talk in person about the more important topics, like Westworld.

One or two ground rules: let’s limit our responses to two paragraphs or less so that this doesn’t turn into an essay exchange. No subjects are out of bounds, though I imagine each of us will want to steer the blog in different directions. On that note, I’ll jump right in: last week you shot me over an article in the Forward: “Why You Shouldn’t Go to Synagogue on Rosh Hashanah.” Its author, Jay Michaelson, essentially argues that the traditional belief systems that originally motivated the High Holidays– the Book of Life, the Gates of Repententance, etc., etc.– just aren’t believable in liberal circles any longer.  We grew up in those liberal circles. Is he right? If he is, why do we keep bothering to show up?

Aron: Sorry for leaving dishes in the sink. Holding off on the question of whether to show up at all, I think Michaelson gets at the heart of a bizarre cognitive dissonance in liberal Jewish circles. On the one hand, many (most?) of us don’t really believe that wrongdoers are always punished and the just are rewarded (isn’t this why we whisper the end of birkat hamazon?) or definitively believe in a God who busies Godself with our lives. We don’t, in short, subscribe to the original theology of the Torah and (much of) the Talmud. All of a sudden, on the High Holidays, we do. We affirm that God picks who lives and dies based on their moral merit. We pray to a highly concrete and anthropomorphized image of a God who writes every detail of our lives in a book. It’s not just that those are the words we say in shul; the way many of us talk about the High Holidays suggests that we believe in them to a degree that many of us don’t believe other precepts in Judaism, even when those other precepts are emphasized much more heavily in the Tanakh and Talmud. I hear people speak about Yom Kippur as a day of judgment with a conviction that I don’t hear nearly as many people speak about Shabbat as a day of rest.

Why is there this cognitive split? Are we hedging against the chance that all of this stuff might actually be true? Tradition? Or is it because the High Holidays epitomize the paradox of liberal Judaism? On a fundamental level, our communities may not believe that these precepts and holidays are divinely mandated, but we’re afraid that if we admit that, we won’t be able to provide a compelling, alternative reason to be religious. Instead, we overcompensate, double down, and try to prove to ourselves that we can spend a full three days believing in the theology of the Talmud so that we don’t have to spend the rest of the year wondering what the point of all this stuff is. Why haven’t we moved past this?

Allen: I don’t want to hear it about the dishes. Save your apologies for Yom Kippur– and if you don’t bother to show up, I’ll subtract five points from your Book of Life score.

While I definitely share your intellectual problems with the traditional High Holiday schpiel, I’m not sure that it should be described as “cognitive dissonance”, or that liberal Judaism itself is entirely to blame. Often our the reasons for our commitments, religious or otherwise, remain unstated, but I’ve heard thoughtful “once-a-year Jews” offer a self-defense something like the following. “Sure, I don’t buy into Jewish theology, but the High Holidays still resonate with me. Maybe it’s the sense that I’m a tiny part of a historical and physical world much larger than myself; maybe it’s the need for self-reflection; maybe it’s a subjective attachment to my family’s past. Whatever the case, I won’t commit my life to an archaic religion, but I’m willing to pay it tribute for a few hours when the time comes.” That seems to me a basically consistent and respectable position. The issue comes when engaged Jews like you and me have to justify our lifestyle choices; then, I admit, there’s a problem. And at some point we can talk about what that justification might start out looking like.

We also can’t lay the blame for our religious situation entirely at the feet of our own religious institutions. Liberal Judaism has faced some tough headwinds, along with liberal Protestantism and liberal Catholicism. There’s been the rapid shrinking of all community affiliations, not just synagogues, in the last fifty years. (See Robert Putnam on this.) There’s been centuries of philosophers and scientists chipping away at the foundations of traditional belief, leaving behind the High Holidays as remnants of a once imposing theological structure. It’s hard work to construct a compelling, modern theology from the rubble in a year or a decade. So yes, liberal Judaism has its theological problems– but is are liberal Jews themselves really guilty here? And what kind of solutions do they need?

Aron: I’ll grant you that that justification for only coming to shul on the High Holidays is internally consistent. It seems to be predicated, though, on a critical mass of liberal Jews being more consistently engaged. Would going to shul only on the High Holidays provide any meaningful self-reflection if we knew that everyone in the service was also in synagogue for the first time this year? This leads us back, as you note, to the question of how to justify an observant, liberal commitment (obviously, Jews much more learned and experienced than we are have addressed this question, but it seems to still be a big one).

Can we lay the blame entirely at the feet of our institutions? Of course not. But we can criticize them for inactivity and equivocation in the face of a clear religious crisis. You say that it’s hard to construct a compelling ideology in a year or a decade, but Mordecai Kaplan wrote Judaism as a Civilization more than 80 years ago. I don’t agree with his prescriptions, but the problems he diagnoses in 1934 are clearly recognizable today and are more prevalent than ever. Why is Hebrew school so boring? Why aren’t liberal Jewish institutions offering compelling spiritual reasons to keep kashrut and shabbat that aren’t predicated on the divinity of the Torah and don’t reduce Judaism to “cultural traditions”?  How do we integrate biblical criticism into a believable theology? How do we reckon with the concept of “chosen-ness”? How can we promote Jewish literacy in our non-Orthodox communities? I’d add some related questions: why are (tens of ? hundreds of?) millions of dollars spent on Birthright, “fighting BDS,” and lobbying for Israel while pittances are allocated to subsidizing Jewish education or making it more engaging? Why do we spend so much time prepping high school students to “defend” Israel but so little time showing them how to wrestle with Judaism in a serious, creative, authentic, rebellious, and engaged way? Why does the Rabbinical Assembly’s website look like AskJeeves is still the go-to search engine?

I realize I just threw a lot out there. How do we end a blogpost?

AllenWe end a post once all the problems of liberal Judaism have been solved, and not before. Failing that, I think two posts apiece is about as much as our possibly nonexistent audience should have to put up with.

I agree that our circles are sometimes reluctant to raise these questions because we’re afraid we won’t like the answers. It’s a bit like that game of Jenga (which we may have played ten or more years back): you pull on one block too hard, and the whole tower comes tumbling down. But if Judaism can’t take the criticism, why hold onto it? So we knock the whole thing down, and start building again layer by layer.

It seems worth flagging the problems you’ve raised so far so that we can circle back later. In no particular order, we’ll want to touch on:

  • Theology: What we believe or we convince ourselves we believe, especially as relates to the the spectacle that is the liberal Jewish High Holidays
  • Practice: Justifying a serious and engaged Jewish life in some way, shape or form
  • Text: The (lack of?) divinity behind the Torah
  • Institutions: why Hebrew school is so God-awful
  • “B-D-S”: Double scare quotes mandatory
  • Facial hair: Kaplan vs. Heschel
  • Mordecai_Kaplan.jpgHeschel2.jpg

Let the self-important polemics begin!

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